Friday, December 2, 2011

"Do We Really Still Need Eastern State Penitentiary?"

The title is in quotes because I'm not asking, rather that's the question posed by Philadelphia Magazine writer, Annie Monjar in an article of the same title. I have a question of my own. Has Philadelphia Magazine officially lost it, or are they desperately baiting angry comments in a grab for ad sales?

I'm all for experimental solutions to unusual problems, but Eastern State poses neither a problem nor a need for resolve. In fact, Eastern State's popularity among tourists and curious locals has done its part transforming a once iffy neighborhood. It's amusing that Monjar cites the neighborhood's gentrification success without giving Eastern State it's credit. Instead she carries on about friends she "dragged" to the site who ask, "they need the whole thing?"

She suggests a questionable need for a fortressed park within spitting distance of the Parkway, Fairmount, and the Schuylkill River Trail. The fact that she accuses Eastern State's size as a waste of space yet neglects to mention the adjacent surface lot, nearly the same size, says a little bit about where she might be from. Philadelphia newcomers have a nagging habit of embracing what makes Philadelphia unique before they move in, followed by a disdain for the unique when it compromises their creature comforts.

To be fair, Monjar hasn't proposed bulldozing the historic structure, not completely, but rather delegating a portion of its walled grounds as public park space by razing the less restorable wings. Monjar obviously didn't visit Eastern State in the mid-1990s when its doors were first opened to those with a hard hat and a sense of adventure. If she had, she would know that the foundation's initial mission was to maintain the site's decay as part of its history rather than rewriting it through renovations and restorations. It's a very unique concept and one that we've embraced at Eastern State for two decades.

Unlike Alcatraz, visitors to Eastern State are confronted with the same bleak experience that Charles Dickens wrote about after his visit. Its self guided tours offer visitors a history lesson, but its open ended experience allows the more adventurous the opportunity to wander, enjoy its peaceful surroundings, and enjoy the art exhibits that fill its forgotten cells.

While the article seems harmless on the surface, the fact that such an opinion has been printed in a local publication suggests an increasing lack of understanding and respect for our city's history. Philadelphia is old. Would London raze part of it's Tower for public park space? Although not nearly as old, like European cities, much of our history lies in our ruins.

Those of us that know Philadelphia know what we've lost. We know what a blessing it is that this site has survived countless proposals that called for its demolition. To come to Philadelphia and propose demolishing even a portion of Eastern State for a park is on par with clearing part of the Acropolis for condos. That may sound absurd to someone like Monjar who I can only assume is new to Philadelphia, but like Athenians and Romans, we have an unwavering pride in our landmarks that can be just as loyal.

I can be staunchly pragmatic when it comes to business and development, but one thing I love about Philadelphia is, like many European cities, when it comes to our history, sometimes, sacrificing even a piece of grass to maximize perceived potential, isn't worth the financial benefits. Perhaps that's where Monjar is lost. When we walk though the gates of Eastern State, we see the history in every square foot of its grounds. When Monjar and her apparently unimpressed friends enter, they see a pile of bricks. They're looking for the tour guide and the gift shop. They want the history lesson printed in a coloring book rather than embracing the macabre experience.

I don't know Annie Monjar so I can't speak for her tenure in our city. I would like to assume that her proposal is a knee jerk reaction to something she doesn't get. She is obviously a talented writer, so I hope in time she comes to appreciate Philadelphia not just as someone who resides here, but as a Philadelphian. Perhaps, like many of us not native to Philadelphia, each continued visit to our landmarks' hallowed halls will bring her closer to understanding each brick's importance.

In the mean time, publishing such a brazenly anti-Philadelphian article in Philadelphia Magazine is disrespectful to its namesake.


  1. The young woman that wrote the original article clearly didn't do her research about the history of this penitentiary. She's sees the prison as a detriment to her community, as its taking up too much space that could clearly be used as a park or other public space.. History shows that the fairmount neighborhood, which was at one point the out skirts of the city, was built up around the penitenitiary, and eventually saw a revitalization. She proposes the idea about building a park within the penitentiary walls, not tearing down the whole structure, only a portion of it. I wonder if she's ever walked behind the Penitentiary, up near Corinthian. Because Eastern State did build a playground for the neighborhood behind the prison. As an employee of this great landmark, I've seen neighbors scowl as they walk by "Terror Behind the Walls", and I agree with what alot of the neighbors say. . . That there's no parking, the crowds are too unbearable, etc...although the good definitely outweighs the bad within these walls and the fact that Philly Magazine even published this further confirms my belief that lay journalism is the pits.

  2. Thanks for posting. Even though Monjar's article was so idiotic and ill-informed that it didn't even deserve a response this intelligent. Someone who has been living in a neighborhood for all of 4 months should not be giving public opinions about how to transform it. "she is obviously a talented writer" - I think you are being too generous.

  3. Leave ESP alone! I worked there as a tour guide a couple of years ago, and it is one of the treasures of Philadelphia, as well as the whole nation. You can learn more there in a day - about society and about yourself - than you can in many years of school!